Mostly, it’s a good idea. Mostly.

write the way you speakOh dear. Everybody’s doing it – going informal, that is. For some, it works brilliantly: my mobile phone fact-finding mission (see below) yielded up some gems. In the cool stakes, Virgin’s number one. They’d be my choice if I was cool. (I’m not.) Banks, however, are a different matter. They have a wide range of customers, from huge multinationals to personal account holders. So they have to please all of the people all of the time. And that means striking the right balance in the tone of their copy. Or so you’d think. Just the other day, I was at Barclays, paying in some cheques. Their sober, dark-blue paying-in envelopes had disappeared. In their place were kingfisher-blue versions. But it wasn’t just the colour they’d thrown out. Gone was the formal, business-like tone. ‘Cash, cheques and bill payments. (All fit in here)’ it declared. In case I was concerned that it was complicated, the slip assured me it was ‘dead easy’. And if I wanted any more ‘great stuff’ from Barclays, I just had to ask. With my copywriter antennae now fully extended, I looked around, and the telltale signs of a tone change were everywhere. Not just the play area, for busy parents to drop their kids while they renegotiated their mortgage. There was a feedback area – not quite ‘how’s my banking?’ but not far off. And as I stepped outside, the picture was complete. The Barclays cash machine has officially been rebranded ‘the hole in the wall’.

A delicate balancing act

Informality does reduce the distance between you and the reader. Sometimes, it’s a small thing – like using contractions (I’m, he’s, it’s) or short words instead of long ones. But you can end up going too far. Some professions need to create an impression of reliability and trustworthiness. And I think banking is one of them. After all, we’re trusting them with our money, so we want to know it’s in safe hands. But if you’ve decided you’re definitely going to change your tone of voice, you need to make sure it trickles down to everyone in the organisation. Last summer, I went to visit my business manager at Barclays. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I decided to go in shorts and a t-shirt. The receptionist looked me up and down as if I’d taken the wrong turn for Glastonbury, drew herself up to her full height and said ‘How may I help you?’ This summer, I might try it again – just to see if I get a warmer welcome. I’ll just tell them I’ve come to talk about ‘great stuff’ with my business manager. Should be dead easy.